Is IT work getting more stressful, or is it the Millennials?

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Credit: flickr/Benjamin Watson

Some wonder whether generational differences are a contributor to stress levels

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IT work can be stressful, which has always been true. But a new survey says the stress level in IT may be rising. But why?

Are IT managers demanding more? Are users increasingly impatient? Are IT workers expecting a better work-life balance and is that need a generational thing?

The increased stress level of IT work is based on four years of data from GFI Software, which commissioned an independent survey on this topic.

The survey, which started in 2012, just released its 2015 report, and found that of 78% of the IT workers surveyed consider their job stressful. That's up just 1% from 2014, but in 2013 the figure was 57% and in 2012, 67%.

"Everybody gets a work-life balance except for the poor IT guy," said Sergio Galindo, general manager at GFI Software, which makes network security and messaging software, about the survey. The survey was conducted independently by Opinion Matters.

Some of the causes of workplace stress may be attributed to quantifiable conditions, in particular uncompensated overtime. Of the more than 200 IT professionals surveyed at firms of at least 10 or more people, nearly half said they worked up to eight unpaid hours per week, which was nearly equal to last year's finding as well. The survey did not include the ages of the participants.

The consequences of stress are many. Nearly half of the respondents reported "missed social functions due to overrunning issues and tight deadlines." Another 40% said they missed time with children, and an equal percentage reported lost sleep. Nearly 30% said they suffered from stress-related illnesses. IT work has long been associated with stress, the result of calls in the middle of the night, aggressive deadlines, angry users, mundane tasks and unexpected problems. One study found that the more stress a programmer deals with, the lower the quality of the code.

But some wonder whether there are generational dynamics at work that contributed to the survey's findings.

Millennials, those ages 18 to 34, are now firmly in the workforce. Generations have certain personalities, and a Pew Research Survey described this generation as the most educated in U.S. history, more likely to switch careers and to place parenthood and marriage above career and financial success.

Billie Blair, who holds a doctorate in organizational psychology and heads Change Strategist, a Los Angeles-based management consulting firm, questions whether the survey's findings reflect the attitudes of Millennials who "don't handle stress well nor do they tolerate the mundane well."

The reason Millennials may be less able to handle stress is that they interact with others in person far less than other generations do, since most of their social interactions have been through Internet-based, arms-length contact, Blair said. This generation has also been protected from many real-life situations by their parents, "so the workplace tends to be more stressful for them than for others."

Another possibility is that the end-user Millennials are increasing the stress levels for IT workers.

Users are increasingly sophisticated about technology, which is "especially true of Millennials," said Mitch Ellis, managing director of executive search firm Sanford Rose Associates in St. Louis. "They may not know how to develop and configure applications, but they are expert users and embrace rather than fear technology," he said.

Millennials "are no longer in awe of technology specialists and therefore demand higher service levels," Ellis said.

Ellis doesn't see clear evidence that stress in the IT workforce is reaching a crisis. The firm recruits CIOs and vice presidents in IT, so his view included that caveat.

But among those in leadership, there's been a demand for higher service levels and for IT leaders who can contribute to corporate strategy. "This cascades through the IT function and requires the entire IT team to become more sensitive to the demand of end users," he said.

Joe Silverman, who owns the New York City-based repair and IT services firm Computer Help in Manhattan, said his company has noticed that older techs, those ages 33 and up, are "definitely able to handle stress better than folks coming out of college." Many of his workers are older and have been with the company for 10 years or more.

"As a younger worker, we were more stressed on gaining approval from management, peers, and customers along with paving our own identities," Silverman said. "Once we knew our roles, we have been at peace with what we do and with any challenges that present stress to us," he said.

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